Tuesday, 26 July 2016

Cover art for THE HEART OF WHAT WAS LOST by Tad Williams

DAW Books have revealed the cover art for The Heart of What Was Lost, the new Osten Ard novel by Tad Williams taking place between the original Memory, Sorrow and Thorn trilogy and the new Last King of Osten Ard series.

This book will be published on 3 January 2017. It will be followed by The Witchwood Crown, the first novel in the Last King of Osten Ard trilogy, on 4 April 2017.

Sunday, 24 July 2016

First trailer for Season 2 of THE EXPANSE released

SyFy have unveiled the first trailer for Season 2 of The Expanse, their SF TV series based on Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck's space opera novels (published under the pen-name James S.A. Corey).

Season 2 will combine the grand finale of the first novel of the series, Leviathan Wakes, with the events of the second novel, Caliban's War.

SyFy have also signed a distribution deal with Amazon Prime, which will see The Expanse launch in several new territories (including the UK and Ireland) in December this year via that service. Season 2 will air on SyFy in early 2017, possibly February.

There are five novels in The Expanse series already available: Leviathan Wakes, Caliban's War, Abaddon's Gate, Cibola Burn and Nemesis Games. The sixth novel, Babylon's Ashes, will be released in November this year.

New STAR TREK TV series given a name and setting

CBS have confirmed that their new Star Trek series will be called Star Trek: Discovery. The new series will follow a mission involving the USS Discovery (NCC-1031), a Federation starship, and will be set in the "Prime" timeline (i.e. the same timeline and continuity as the original series, The Next Generation, Deep Space Nine and Voyager).

Executive producer Bryan Fuller would not confirm precisely when in the timeline the show would be set. He previously shot down a rumour that the show would be set between Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country and Star Trek: The Next Generation and suggested that characters and actors from the previous shows could appear in later seasons of the new series, hinting at a post-Voyager timeframe. However, the USS Discovery is a deliberately retro design (drawing on Ralph McQuarrie's 1970s concept art for Star Trek: The Motion Picture) and its early design number suggests it's an old ship, predating even the original Enterprise. Fans have already speculated that it's an old ship pulled back into service for some reason, or the vessel is carried forwards in time as part of the new storyline.

Little else is known at the moment, save that filming starts in September, the series will consist of between 10 and 13 episodes and the show will debut in January on CBS before moving onto CBS All Access in the States. Space will air the show in Canada and Netflix will broadcast the series in most other territories.

Friday, 22 July 2016

First trailer for AMERICAN GODS released

Starz have unveiled the first trailer for American Gods, their upcoming TV series based on Neil Gaiman's 2001 novel.

American Gods hits Starz in early 2017.

Star Trek Beyond

The USS Enterprise is three years into its five-year mission exploring deep space. However, Captain James T. Kirk is feeling boredom settling in. The mission consists of a lot more diplomatic work and less boldly exploring the frontier than he was expecting. Whilst docked at the massive Starbase Yorktown, the Enterprise receives a distress call from the heart of a nearby, mysterious nebula. Kirk sets out, eager to see something new...only to get a lot more than he bargained for.

When J.J. Abrams rebooted Star Trek in 2009, he assembled an absolutely killer cast. Replicating the chemistry of the original crew was a tall order, but he somehow achieved it with the likable - if massively flawed - first reboot film. It was also pretty much the only thing holding together the appalling sequel, Into Darkness, in 2013. The diabolical quality of that movie lowered expectations for this third entry in the new series, especially when it was announced that Simon Pegg would be writing the script and Justin Lin would be directing.

To some degree that was counter-intuitive, given Pegg's geek credentials and his strong writing experience (especially on the Spaced TV series and his collaborations with Edgar Wright). But Pegg's recent writing work has been patchy and Justin Lin is best known for the Fast and Furious franchise, not known for its thoughtful exploration of the unknown. Fans may have been a little too quick to judge there: not only is Lin a massive Star Trek fan from his chilldhood but his F&F movies transitioned quite cleverly from just dumb action movies into actions movies with a strong sense of character interplay, family and heart.

These sensibilities come into full force on Star Trek Beyond. Lin delivers explosions, impressive stunts and some great action set-pieces - and unlike the two previous movies, most of these are well-shot and comprehensible - but he also delivers on bringing the characters together and driving them apart and finding out what makes them tick as individuals and as a group. He is well-served by Simon Pegg's script (helped out by Doug Jung), the writer relishing his chance to finally write an all-out science fiction blockbuster and delivering. Pegg, like Abrams, is known to be a Star Wars fan much more than a Star Trek one, but whilst Abrams ill-advisedly set about trying to turn Trek into Wars, Pegg has actually sat down and worked out what makes Star Trek different and brought those elements into the script. For example, fans were bemused by the near-total lack of any decent Spock/McCoy banter in the Abrams movies but here get an entire, fairly substantial subplot focused on the two characters which works extremely well. Zoe Saldana's Uhura also gets a great (if a little brief) storyline as she gets under the skin of main villain Kraal (Idris Elba under heavy makeup) and tries to find out what makes him tick. Anton Yelchin's Chekov gets a fair few action scenes, so of the main cast it's only John Cho's Sulu that gets short shrift. And even he still gets to command the Enterprise, lead a prison break and is given the most personal stakes in the final showdown (nicely underplayed, as well).

Star Trek Beyond in fact tries to do something that is very clever: it goes for the all-out CG blockbuster stuff but then suddenly reins it in and goes for unexpected restraint. A lengthy (and slightly nonsensical) CGI space battle turns into a low-tech, far more relatable struggle on the surface of a planet. A major CG fest of phasers and spaceships in the finale gives way to that greatest of Star Trek staples: Kirk and the villain facing off with just their fists, but done in a near-zero gravity environment against a dizzying backdrop (if you suffer from strong vertigo, I would advise against seeing this film in 3D). The movie also sacrifices the shining Apple-influenced hallways and bridge of the Enterprise for a more primitive NX-class starship (cue the Star Trek: Enterprise fans cheering, although it's not that one) and brings back a genuine sense of wonder to the graphic design. Starbase Yorktown is a jaw-dropping creation, a multi-sided city floating in what is effectively a snowglobe, evoking not just previous Star Trek designs but also the Citadel of the Mass Effect trilogy.

The film also remembers it's the 50th anniversary year and uses the recent death of Leonard Nimoy to pay homage to that: young Spock learning of the passing of his older, other-dimensional self and then discovering a box of his possessions allows the movie to tip its hat at what came before in a surprisingly effective move which informs Spock's excellent character development throughout the rest of the movie. Zachary Quinto has less to do than in either of Beyond's two predecessors but his character arc is considerably more satisfying, emotional and, as some may say, logical.

New characters are surprisingly thin on the ground. The villain Kraal is well-played by Elba, but for most of the film lacks decent motivation. The finale finally explains who he is and what he wants, and it's a great moment, but comes rather late in the day. Still, Elba's villain satisfies far more than either Benedict Cumberbatch-trying-to-be-Ricardo-Montalban or Eric Bana's way too expositionary and over-explained Nero. Also impressive is Sofia Boutella as Jaylah, a native of the new planet who quickly becomes a key ally of Scotty (and later the rest of the gang). Boutella gives Jaylah just the right mix of badass warrior and slightly overwhelmed local girl, and her fascination with science and engineering plays well into the finale. I hope we see her back in the next film (if there is one; Beyond's opening numbers are looking a bit iffy at the moment). Shohreh Aghdashloo also gets a memorable cameo as a Federation commodore, a pick-up shot to help with exposition and sell Kirk's motivations a bit better. Given it was a late addition to the film, I do wonder if Lin and Pegg had seen her in The Expanse (or, more likely, the trailers) and decided to borrow her authoritative space leader charisma for their movie. In that case, good job.

It's not all a glorious bed of roses, though. There's a fairly obvious plot hole in why Kraal decides to stay on his rubbish planet long after he managed to take control of a swarm of warp-capable spacecraft which could have taken him anywhere he wanted in the galaxy. The Beastie Boys return to the soundtrack for a very well-explained (indeed, somewhat oversold) reason but it still feels out of place, and Star Trek Beyond tries to get a lot of mileage out of a joke that was a toss-off in a 1965 episode of Doctor Who (modern rock music is described as "classical music" by people in the future...BECAUSE THEY ARE IN THE FUTURE!). Kirk also gets to ride a motorbike because, hell, why not?.

But ultimately, Star Trek Beyond (****½) brings a surprising amount of heart to proceedings, doesn't entirely neglect the brain, engages in some great characterisation and team interplay, pays homage to its departed castmembers in a genuinely moving way (a toast to "departed friends" gains tremendous pathos during Anton Yelchin's reaction shot) and features Kirk punching an alien in the face, McCoy and Spock bickering like an old married couple, Scotty pulling off an engineering miracle, Sulu pulling off an insane piloting maneuver, Uhura figuring out how to communicate with an alien species (also: best depiction of the universal translator ever), and Chekov explaining how Russia invented everything, including Scotch. It is, inarguably, the best Star Trek movie in twenty years, since First Contact, and may even (much more arguably) be the best in twenty-five, since The Undiscovered Country. The film is on general release now.

Tuesday, 19 July 2016

Cibola Burn by James S.A. Corey

An alien artifact has opened a wormhole nexus leading to a thousand different star systems, all of them containing at least one Earth-like world. A mass exodus, the greatest diaspora in human history, is threatening to take place but one group of Belter settlers have already staked a claim to a world they call Ilus, although the corporation granted UN settlement rights prefers to call it New Terra. As the settlers and corporate representatives resort to violence, it falls to Jim Holden and the crew of the Rocinante to mediate their dispute. This proves to be a lot easier said than done.

Cibola Burn is the fourth novel in The Expanse series by Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck (writing as James S.A. Corey) and the first to take place outside the Solar system. The Expanse's big success in its opening novels was that it created a relatively restrained vision of the future, with humanity forced to employ slower-than-light travel between the worlds of the Solar system. After the events of Abaddon's Gate, the way to the stars has been thrown open, but it still takes months to get anywhere. For the colonists on Ilus and later the Rocinante crew, this puts them well out of the range of immediate help when things go disastrously wrong.

Each of the Expanse novels has taken a somewhat different tone, helped by Holden being the only continuing POV character, with the rest being exclusive to each novel. Cibola Burn feels like a Western (and more Deadwood than Gunsmoke), with the unruly settlers on the frontier being reeled back in by the mining company backed up by a reluctant sherrif with Indians and smallpox on the horizon. There's lots of hard moral questions and tough challenges posed by both the situation and the environment. This shift of tone is welcome and well-played as it allows a tighter focus on real, low-tech issues and solutions like the first (and still the best) novel in the series, Leviathan Wakes. The threat of the protomolecule, its creators and its even more enigmatic enemies does reassert itself towards the end of the book, along with a space-borne problem that feels a little too reminiscent of Abaddon's Gate, but it definitely takes a back seat for the most of the book.

The focus is on three new characters: a Belter settler named Basia, who is reluctantly drawn into becoming a terrorist; a security officer called Havelock on the orbiting corporation ship and a scientist named Elvi who just wants to be left alone so she can get on with cataloguing the planet's crazy flora and fauna.  These are all well-crafted characters, if not particularly original. Havelock, as the company man who suddenly realises his corporate masters are useless, is an archetype that is looking dangerously overused at this point in the series. Other characters are less well-defined, and main villain Murtry is as cliched and uninteresting as they come: a rigid, dogmatic man unable to adapt to changing circumstances unless it involves shooting things. I get the impression that Abraham and Frank wanted to create a morally murky situation with sympathetic POVs on both sides, but Murtry's outright villainy soon means that the corporate side loses all sympathy and interest.

For a novel almost 600 pages long (in hardcover!) the pages fly past briskly and there's an interesting move away from the gunfights and set piece explosions of the previous novels. There's still a zero-G battle or three, but the writers dial back the more obvious shooting in favour of evoking the occasional SF sensawunda that represents the genre at its best. The social commentary on us bringing our baggage to the stars is well-handled, if a little obvious, and events run enjoyably up to a climax that hints at bigger things to come.

Cibola Burn (****) is the best book in the series since Leviathan Wakes, restoring focus and verve to a series that felt like it was becoming predictable. It'll be interesting to see how they adapt this book to the screen in later seasons of The Expanse, however. Although the producers will likely enjoy the far smaller scale (and hence budget) of things, I can't see viewers being too interested in taking a season off from the rest of the Solar system to see Holden and his crew dealing with frontier settler problems. But as a novel, it workers very well. The book is available now in the UK and USA.

HBO confirm shorter season and late start for GAME OF THRONES in 2017

HBO have confirmed that the seventh season of Game of Thrones will just be seven episodes long, as has been long-planned by the producers. They have also confirmed that location shooting will take place later than usual this year, with some shooting expected to extend into the New Year in Iceland. Normally Game of Thrones shoots from July to December to debut in April, but the producers wanted to take advantage of some actual winter weather to shoot scenes in the North and beyond the Wall.

Game of Thrones previously filmed in Iceland in the second through fourth seasons, primarily for scenes in the North and beyond the Wall, but also for scenes set in and around the Vale of Arryn. The seventh season will also continue to use Spain and Northern Ireland as other filming locations.

Because of this, the seventh season will also air later in the year than normal. Although a precise date was not announced, HBO seem to be planning for the series to return in around June 2017.

However, to alleviate fan disappointment, they will be releasing the sixth season on DVD and Blu-Ray earlier than normal. Traditionally they release the box sets in February or March, just ahead of the new season, but this time they will be releasing the physical media on 15 November.

The show is expected to end with a six-episode eighth season in 2018, but HBO has not formally committed to this plan as yet.

Terry Pratchett's WEE FREE MEN optioned for film

Narrativia, the production company set up to bring Terry Pratchett's works to the screen, has announced that it is partnering with the Jim Henson Company on a movie version of The Wee Free Men, the first of Pratchett's Tiffany Aching series of novels set in his popular Discworld setting.

Rhianna Pratchett, daughter of Terry and a critically-acclaimed writer in her own right, will be penning the adaptation. Brian Henson is on board to produce. At the moment it's unclear if this means the Jim Henson Company's formidable expertise in puppets and animatronics will be brought to bear, or if it will be relying more on their digital technology. No director has yet been named.

This is not the first time the project has been optioned. Sam Raimi previously optioned the novel with an air to direct a film himself, but it fell into development hell whilst Raimi was working on the Spider-Man movies and later his aborted attempt to bring WarCraft to the screen. Narrativia is also developing a City Watch television series (previously with the BBC but now believed to be with another company after the Beeb's cutbacks) and an adaptation of Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman's novel Good Omens, with Gaiman himself penning the script.

Orphan Black: Season 4

Sarah Manning and her clone-sisters have defeated the threat of an illegal attempt to create an army of cloned soldiers, and it seems like maybe they might be able to get back to their lives. But the Neolutionists, who want to expand genetic engineering far beyond mere cloning, have other plans. Sarah and her friends, aided by an enigmatic newcomer known as "MK", are threatened by different factions within the Neolutionist movement and have to face the possibility of making a deal with the devil just to survive.

The first three seasons of Orphan Black were excellent, with the writers showing unusual self-awareness by slimming down a potentially confusing morass of subplots and factions in the third season to a much more straightforward conflict. The fourth season sees this conflict resolved and a whole new storyline begun, but one very much rooted in what came before. The Neolutionists, an opposing faction established in the first season but soon superseded by other groups, return to prominence and the show goes back into its roots by exploring the character of Beth Childs in greater depth. This is also gives supporting characters like Art (who was a little lost in the third season) more to do.

This results in some focused, dramatically-accomplished storytelling. One episode focuses almost entirely on Beth's life as she discovered she was a clone, meeting Allison and Cosima and then the shadowy MK, with events building to the tragic and inevitable end we are already aware of from the opening seconds of the whole series. Tatiana Maslany is so great in her multiple roles that it feels like we've gone beyond redundant in mentioning it, but she somehow manages to up her game even further in the fourth season with both her portrayal of the doomed Beth and also in the present day, particularly her performance as Cosmia where she adds more nuance, depth and tragedy than ever before.

The fourth season risks getting heavy at times, so as usual relies on the screamingly dysfunctional (and dystopian) domestic adventures of Allison and Donnie Hendricks to draw things back in with jet-black humour. This season they also do a great job of involving Allison and Donnie more in the main storylines (in Season 3 it felt like they were making their own spin-off in the context of the larger show) and tonally varying things up a bit to make things more interesting. Donnie and Felix posing as a gay couple looking to have a baby might be the funniest storyline the show has ever done, especially as Felix reels in Donnie's stereotypical performance. Felix, who also got a little lost in the mix in Season 3, gets more to do this year as he embarks on his own quest to find his biological family. We get a lot more insight and empathy into the "villains" of the show this year as well.

Season 4 doesn't really falter at all, although some fans will bemoan a distinct lack of screen-time for Helena (although when she does return, she makes it felt in her own inimitable style) and the total absence of Cal (Michael Huisman possibly busy filming Game of Thrones). Particularly brilliant is the ending, which sets us up with a new villain who is actually an old one: Orphan Black and Game of Thrones have both realised that there is nothing more satisfying than having your ultimate main bad guy as someone you've gotten to know already over multiple years and set up accordingly. Things are set up for what will hopefully be an exhilarating showdown in the final season next year.

Orphan Black's fourth season (*****) sees the show somehow get even better than it was previously. Even in a golden age of television, it is entirely possible that this little SF show from Canada might be the very best thing on TV at the moment. The show is available now on Blu-Ray and DVD in the USA, with a UK release to follow in a few months. It is available now on Netflix in the United Kingdom and Ireland.

Monday, 18 July 2016

Netflix wins international airing rights for new STAR TREK series

As expected, Netflix has won the international viewing rights to the new Star Trek TV series, including the UK and Republic of Ireland. Each new episode will be available on Netflix internationally 24 hours after each episode is released on CBS All Access.

This compliments Netflix's recent acquisition of the entire Star Trek TV library in many territories. The deal does not include the USA, where the new show will air exclusively on CBS's All Access streaming service, or Canada, where CTV and Space will be airing the show.

The new show is currently building sets in Toronto (where producer Bryan Fuller is overseeing things whilst also working on American Gods, which is wrapping up shooting of its first season). Casting is due to get underway imminently, and we should learn more about the details of the show in the next couple of months. Meanwhile, Star Trek Beyond hits cinemas next week and the early buzz is that may be the best of the Abramsverse movies so far.